The Neo-Nazi Next Door

The New York Times reported in 2013 that notorious white supremacist Craig Cobb was buying land in Leith, N.D., and using the Web to call like-minded extremists to join him in the tiny rural town, with the goal of transforming it into a white nationalist enclave. Leith’s 24 longtime residents were growing alarmed and outraged.

The Times article caught the attention of filmmakers Michael Beach Nichols ’02 and Christopher K. Walker. “It just seemed like a real-life Western playing out, where you have this stranger coming into town, and he has nefarious motives, and he’s wanting to take over the government,” says Nichols, who did his American studies thesis at Amherst on violence in small Southern towns and went on to earn an M.A. in documentary filmmaking from the University of Florida.

When Nichols and Walker learned that Cobb’s plan was gaining traction—that Neo-Nazi Kynan Dutton had moved to Leith with his family, and that other white supremacists had bought land from Cobb in town—they decided to travel to North Dakota with their cameras.


Welcome to Leith Sign
"Welcome to Leith" by Michael Beach Nichols ’02 and Christopher K. Walker airs on PBS’s Independent Lens April 4, 2016

The result is Welcome to Leith, a feature-length documentary that shows all sides of the escalating confl ict, with activists protesting the racist encroachment, neighbors attempting to oust the white supremacists on building-code-related technicalities, and Cobb and Dutton patrolling the town with guns—an intimidation tactic for which they are arrested and jailed. In addition, the documentary includes contextualizing commentary from workers at the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit that monitors and exposes hate groups nationwide.

Welcome to Leith has been shown at Sundance, South by Southwest and dozens of other film festivals. Reviews in major media outlets echo each other with words such as “haunting,” “unnerving” and “scary,” but also “sober,” “remarkably objective” and “surprisingly even-keeled.”

The documentary has also attracted controversy. When Cobb did a Skype Q&A after the Sundance screening, audience members criticized not only the outspoken racist but the filmmakers and festival organizers for giving him a platform.

Residents of Leith
Leith’s 24 longtime residents grew ever more alarmed and outraged as white supremacists patrolled their town with guns.

“We felt like it would be most powerful for the audience to hear directly from him what he was going after and what his belief system is,” Nichols says of Cobb’s inclusion in the film and Q&A. Leaving out Cobb’s voice or giving him less screen time, the filmmakers believed, might make him seem less hateful, calculating and dangerous than he actually was, thereby doing “an injustice to the fears the people in the town were experiencing, because they were really terrified.”

“I had fear, every time I walked outside my house, that that guy was going to shoot me,” says townsperson Lee Cook toward the end of the documentary. “I did not let my kids walk that town.”

At one point, the film shows a reporter asking Bobby Harper, Leith’s only black resident, whether he’ll move away for his own safety. He will not, he asserts: “It’s my home, and I have a right to be there.”

Speaking for themselves, the white supremacists say the same thing.